How We Can Solve the STEM Crisis Through Innovation

America, it's time to solve the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) crisis. Great scientists -- innovators like Edison, Einstein, and Rachel Carson -- think outside of the box.
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America, it's time to solve the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) crisis. Great scientists -- innovators like Edison, Einstein, and Rachel Carson -- think outside of the box. They look at the natural world in novel ways, opening new pathways forward for humanity. Why should our approach to STEM education be any different?

We shouldn't just tinker with current models -- tweaking what we test, or modestly updating how we train our full-time teachers. Instead we need to invent a new paradigm -- a whole new definition of who can teach STEM and where and when they can teach it. Of course we still need strong science teachers in our schools. But what if we also issued an "all-hands-on-deck" call to successful scientists and engineers? What if we asked these STEM professionals to mentor under-represented minorities, and low-income children, and girls -- all groups woefully underrepresented in STEM fields? What if we try mentorship at a massive scale?

Last Friday at CGI America, a nationwide gathering hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative, President Clinton joined US2020 and its leading corporate partners in announcing a plan to mobilize one million STEM mentors by the year 2020, in part through a new city competition to identify and advance creative local efforts to expand STEM mentoring. The US2020 City Competition will award $1 million in cash and in-kind support to up to five winning cities that propose plans to mobilize STEM volunteers through partnerships with leading science and technology businesses. The competition will allow cities to use their most powerful resources -- their people -- to unlock the potential of all of their students.

"We need these one million volunteers" to inspire students from diverse backgrounds to pursue challenging STEM courses in school and STEM careers after graduation, said President Clinton. "This commitment today increases rather dramatically the chances that (STEM teachers) will have enough students and that they will be students who never would have been in these classes before."

US2020 was announced by President Obama at the 3nd Annual White House Science Fair in April. The initiative is led by Citizen Schools, a national education non-profit, and includes partnerships with leading science and technology firms and STEM non-profits. The goal is to help prepare the next generation of STEM professionals by recruiting and training STEM professionals to lead school-based and extra-curricular projects with students, such as building robots, conducting medical experiments, designing video games, and launching rockets.

US2020 seeks to make mentoring the new normal for STEM professionals. In the legal profession, 44 percent of lawyers did more than 20 hours of pro bono work in 2011. By contrast, our analysis suggests that only three to five percent of STEM professionals serve as mentors for 20 or more hours per year. The fastest growing sectors of the workforce are in STEM, yet only one in five of U.S. students are interested and proficient (17.3 percent) in STEM subjects. The main reasons for this lack of interest, according to the Lemelson Center at MIT: Most students don't know STEM professionals, and they don't know what they do.

Children learn best through experience. Children who grow up with a scientist or an engineer as a role model find avenues to unlock their natural curiosity. Even a basic childhood activity like flying a kite becomes a lesson in aerodynamics and a window into future careers. Children, who don't have access to mentors, particularly in the STEM subjects, do not have the same opportunities, allowing potential to go untapped.

US2020 and its partners -- Cisco, Cognizant, SanDisk, Tata Consultancy Services, HP, and others -- are taking strides to strengthen the STEM career pipeline by providing all students the opportunity to experience those "light bulb" moments of discovery that happen when they invent something new. "Learning environments with teams of teachers, students and content experts working collaboratively around real-world problems are critical to developing the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders," said Tom Carroll, President of National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a US2020 partner.

We can't ignore the gap between STEM job openings and qualified applicants. Labor economists project an estimated three million new job openings in the STEM sector by 2018, but only one million Americans who will be qualified to fill them. The U.S. currently ranks 23rd in science performance in international tests, and 31st in math. Now is the time to change this.

Mentorship is not a radical idea. Many successful organizations have deployed mentors into schools and community centers with much success. Citizen Schools currently deploys 5,000+ mentors per year -- plus hundreds of trained AmeriCorps members -- and has been able close achievement gaps and double student interest in STEM careers. It's time to bring an innovative, nationwide approach to mentoring, and it starts with bringing our STEM talent and high quality nonprofit organizations together to impact the lives of students. Inspiring students through hands-on projects is a key step to building the STEM workforce -- and the informed citizenry -- we need.

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